Friday, February 24, 2012

Combining Story Ideas

A writer emailed me to ask, "So I have a bunch of 'Novels' started, but I run out of things to write about for that story. So I stop and just start another one. Could I some how combine them or should I just write the rest of the story even though I can't think of anything else good to write? Any tips would be great!"

This is an excellent question, and I think it's something all writers - newbie and seasoned alike - can suffer from. You get a spark of an idea - a premise, a character name, a perfect opening line - and feel invigorated. It's your best idea yet! How much longer until the bell rings, because I have to get out of class and write this story now?!

You write a couple pages or chapters and then your inspiration slowly dries up. Whether it's because the idea that seemed crystal clear in your head is a bit murkier on paper or because you mentioned the idea to your sister and she wrinkled her nose, you begin to distance yourself from the project. Until finally, when the next big idea hits, you shove aside your original manuscript in order to pursue this new story.

While there's tremendous value in writing a novel from beginning to end, and while I think you'll grow more as a writer from writing one complete novel than writing a dozen first chapters, there's certainly a time and place to set projects aside.

When I do it it's because:

  • I realize my idea isn't big enough to sustain a novel.
  • I'm asked to work on another project (by my agent or editor or something)

When it's the first, when I've realized my idea isn't big enough yet, often all I need is time to "find" the rest of the story. Sometimes all that takes is a brainstorming session with my critique partner. Other times I need weeks or months of "composting." Of mulling over the idea while I'm doing those otherwise brainless activities like washing dishes or showering. (I swear, most my good ideas come when I'm doing one of those two activities.)

So, as challenging as this can be, sometimes you just need more time.

But it's certainly not a bad idea to take a look at your list of works-in-progress and see if you can do some combining. This is an exercise I shared months ago in the Go Teen Writers Newsletter. It's adapted from Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. (He has you draw lines, but I like the index cards.)

The original intent is to help you develop unexpected connections in a manuscript, but I think it could be great fun to try it on a couple manuscripts and see what you come up with.

First you get some index cards. Write down 10ish characters from your novel (or a couple from each of your novels if you're hoping to combine some stories.) Also, write down 10ish settings and 10ish plot layers or events from your book(s). You're writing one per card, so one card might read, "Jamie," and another, "the diner," and another, "Rose's 16th birthday party."

Mix them all up, then lay them writing-side-down on the floor/desk/counter, as if you're playing a memory game.

Then pick up two or three cards.

They will likely have very little or possibly nothing to do with each other, but ask yourself if there's a way to connect these things. Can you connect Jamie's old boyfriend to Rose's party somehow? Maybe she meets someone who once dated him. Or maybe when she's there, she finds out he's getting married...

You can keep picking up cards as long as you want. A lot of your ideas will be wacky and too "out there" but whenever I do this exercise, I always walk away with a handful of plot twists I can implement. I think it'd be really fun to give it a whirl with multiple manuscripts.

Hope this helps!

Here are some additional posts you might find helpful:

Gathering Your Ideas
Making Sure Your Idea is Big Enough

As always, if you have writing questions, feel free to email me. Have a great weekend, everyone!


  1. As my stack of works-in-progress goes, I find myself doing this a lot when an editor asks for a particular idea. Case in point, my current WIP set in Civil War Savannah. Now, I'd never planned on writing a book like this, but when a publisher asks for you an idea for it, you work it out, LOL.

    I ended up creating a lot of original stuff, of course, but I stole a secondary character from a MS I shelved years ago. Two actually--in the original, these two ended up together. In this version, they have very little to do with each other, but both are crucial to the development of the main characters. And since I already stole the main characters of that original story and plopped THEM into a new setting, but without their sidekicks . . . =)

    Combining ideas is one of my favorite things. It can lead to such interesting places!

  2. I actually did that with my current WIP, combined a plot device I liked with a story idea I'd had for a while. I like to think it's working out. ;)

  3. Hehe . . . I'm going to try that, just for fun! :)

  4. I'm going to try this with some of my ideas :D

  5. I just combined a few things in my current WIP. I felt like I had been tying a knot and then suddenly pulled it tight enough that I knew that it wouldn't come undone. Such a relief.

    I loved how you said you get your best ideas when showering and doing dishes. I think of my stories when I shower too. The idea for my current WIP came while I was blowdrying my hair. I don't know if it was just something that finally clicked, or excessive heat to the brain, but I'm just happy it worked! :)

    1. Oh, Clarebear, your "excessive heat to the brain" comment made me lol for real :)

  6. I get more pieces of ideas instead of actaul ideas. So I've been trying to keep lists of things like setting, basic plot, and so on to refer too. It's how I came up with my WIP. I noticed similarities in a few things and put them together.

  7. Last year in March, I took two weeks out and I just wrote -- NaNo style. 50,000 words later, I put the lid of the laptop down. For the next nine months, I thought. I wondered and I scrawled down ideas. I started again about fifteen times -- I have an actual folder for my novel called "Countless Drafts, Re-writes and Restarts".

    And then, halfway through December last year, I started thinking like crazy. And then I sat down outside -- beautiful scenery -- got out my laptop... and I wrote. I didn't rush, occasionally I outlined a chapter or two -- I didn't want to get lost. Some days I wrote six thousand words and some only five hundred. I tried the method you just described, with the index cards -- and got a great little twist out of it.

    Oh, and right at this really crucial part? One of my characters pulled a fast one on me. I was shocked. And so very pleased. How unpredictable!

    Three weeks later and the soundtrack of Once been played about oh, three hundred times -- I shut the laptop. I was done.

    I've read through it, my family's just about finished. Gathering my constructive sheets of criticism -- I'm ready to head into the editing process.

    And I just had to share that. The history of my novel so far. ;)

  8. What a fun idea! When I'm trying to work out a story idea, I generally have to sit down and just think. I can't type - because then I get side tracked. But if I sit down and focus on the storyline, I can basically watch it in my head like it's a movie, and then I'll scribble it all down on a piece of paper before I lose it. :)

    Lots of my ideas do pop into my head when I'm washing dishes (why is that?) or feeding the horses. I guess it's those mindless tasks when you're still busy but your brain is free to wander through the plot maze.

    And I've definitely stolen characters from other stories I've written... I'm actually contemplating doing that right now, but uprooting a character is such a painful experience that I'm not too sure I want to do that to poor Paddy. :)

  9. Hey Mrs. Morrill! Thank you so much for sharing this! But I have a slight problem. This would help me if I wrote all the same type of novel, but I don't. So far, I have started several realistic fiction 'books', Renaissance fiction, and dystopian. Could I some how make a realistic Renaissance fiction and make it dystopian from their point of veiw?

    1. Stephanie will probably have a much better suggestion, but how about send your characters to a Renaissance Fair!!! :D It can be in modern times and older times at the SAME time. :D :D :D :D

    2. I never thought of that! Thanks Random Thinker 1! That helps! :D <3

  10. Love that index card exercise! :) Gillian and Emii, loved reading your comments! :)

  11. I am definitely a writer who has a short attention span, and my ideas get muddled easily, so I'm eager to try this out. The possibility of plot twists is alluring.... ;)

  12. Ooh, great idea! It reminds me of a game my friend and I sometimes play: one of us names 3 random things and the other has about 5 seconds to work them into some sort of storyline. I've gotten several good ideas from it. I love this blog, by the way. It has everything I need, and most of all it's so nice to know I'm not alone. It's a real blessing!

  13. I have a question that doesn't really fit this, but how do you decide what genre to write? I want to write young adult books, for teens my age, but I can't decide which genre I should do. I like history, modern-day, and future settings. Are there any activies or things to help me figure it out? I've tried all settings, but finished none.
    Thanks :D

    1. Tessa, I wish there was an easy way to figure it out, but sadly, there really isn't :( If there's a particular genre you like to read, then that can offer a clue.

      But if you're still working to finish your first manuscript, I don't think there's a big rush to decide right now. Just keep working on various stories and see if a pattern develops. Originally I didn't want to write YA, but after a couple years, it was clear the majority of my stories leaned that way.

    2. I finished one manuscript, and it was fantasy. Is YA a genre on it's own? I know i'll never write vampire theme things...
      thanks for your help!

    3. Sorry I'm just now responding, Tessa! Got behind in email. You would say YA Fantasy, then. Rumor has it that not all YA books have to have vampires, though they do seem to help sales numbers... ;)

  14. Thanks sooooo much, Mrs. Morrill, this is such a good, fun idea!
    Can't wait to try it out for myself.